Journalists in Hong Kong accused the city's leader of cracking down on free speech Thursday after he demanded an apology from a newspaper which suggested he had triad connections.
Following a legal letter from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the daily Hong Kong Economic Journal published a special notice in Thursday's edition, stating that its columnist had written the article "in the public interest".
"If this piece has caused inconvenience to readers or caused readers to arrive at an unfair conclusion about Mr. Leung, then the newspaper apologises," it said.
But HKEJ chief editor Chan King-cheung later vented his fury at the government's interference and said the newspaper would not be retracting the story, the South China Morning Post reported.
"Free speech is a value highly treasured in Hong Kong and we feel it would be a bad thing for Hong Kong if this incident has a silencing effect on the media," Chan told the SCMP, saying he was shocked and disappointed.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association joined in the criticism, saying Leung's move could have a "chilling effect on press freedom".
Chan said his newspaper had received the letter from Leung's solicitor last week demanding an apology and the retraction of the article.
The HKEJ column suggested there were signs that Leung had links to triad gangs after they were reportedly seen paying participants at a pro-government rally, according to the SCMP.
It is the second time in two weeks that Leung, widely seen as influenced by Beijing, has come under fire over press freedoms.
Last week local and foreign journalists slammed a government plan to restrict access to information about company directors, after details were used in a series of investigative reports exposing the wealth of Chinese officials.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association said in a statement: "It is inappropriate for Mr. Leung to jump in with threats of legal action before even responding to the commentary so as to allow for a rational discussion of the issues."
Leung defended his actions, insisting that he respected press freedoms.
"I have all along respected freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Nevertheless, the article contains serious allegations which accused me of having relation with triad society. The matter has to be taken seriously," he said in a statement.
The chief executive's office refused to comment when asked by AFP if they planned to pursue legal action against the paper.
Leung was chosen to lead the southern Chinese city by a pro-Beijing committee in March, promising to improve governance and uphold the rule of law in the former British colony of seven million people.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 as a semi-autonomous territory with its own political and legal system that guarantees civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and association.